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Barriers to Empathy

In case you haven't noticed, I'd like to draw your attention to an exciting new blog started by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg (of Journeys with Autism) called Autism and Empathy.

I think this blog is going to be a great boon to the empathy debate and it's well worth bookmarking/following.

Autism and Empathy

I was reading a post there today and started a reply which (as is usual for me) got a bit too long. In any case, my fat fingers hit a wrong key and my comment disappeared, so rather that attempt to retype it there, I've decided to expand it and post it here.

The post I was responding to is called

Possessing But Not Expressing
It's written by Miranda (from Inside the Heart)

It might be worth reading before you read my response.


Miranda talks about how people with autism are often considered to "lack empathy" when what is really lacking is simply the "expected kind of expression".

People express emotion in various ways but people on the autism spectrum are often have characteristics which make interpretation of their expressions difficult. Here are three obvious ones;
  1. A monotone: A voice which in itself sometimes lacks the range of tones that others posess. That's not to suggest that people on the spectrum can't manage tones. They can. They make excellent actors, singers and readers. It's just that when they're in day-to-day conversation, they can't concentrate on everything at once and often variations in tone is one of the casualties.

  2. Facial Expression Difficulties: For example; Some people on the spectrum will grimace instead of smiling. To an NT this indicates pain rather than happiness. Conversely, many will smile when in pain.

  3. Sensory Issues: If touch is a sensory problem, then someone on the spectrum may not give hugs at times when they are most needed. In fact, when a person on the spectrum is in pain, often the thing they crave the most is to be left alone. This is (apparently) the opposite of what many NTs want at these times.
I could probably write a whole post on just those three points but I'm trying to stay on topic.

Miranda's points about posessing without expressing are great. Many people on the spectrum will feel empathy without being able to show that they can feel it.

Of course, playing devil's advocate here, I have to admit that there are some times when they don't feel it - and that's the point of this post.

Three's a good number, so again, I've identified three of those times;

1. When they can't interpret the expression
This is arguably the number one reason why people on the spectrum sometimes don't feel empathy. They don't know that there is a strong emotion present.

Just as our facial expressions and body language are often indecipherable to neurotypicals, so too, theirs is often a mystery to us.

Sure... when someone is crying, it's a no-brainer to say that they're sad. (I'm ignoring tears of happiness). Not everyone cries. Sometimes people have a "sad look" on their face. Sometimes they just interact less. People on the spectrum often interact less when they're pursuing their special interest. How exactly are we supposed to interpret this as sadness?

Then there's the "laughing on the outside while crying on the inside" reaction. I can't even go there. Just take my word for it. It exists, people do it. NT's somehow pick up on it but it's a total mystery to me. Crying = Sad and Laughing = Happy. That's the end of the cues for me.

2. When they really don't have any emotion
I'd love to skip this one and pretend that it doesn't exist but the fact is that I've spoken to many people who claim to have no feelings most of the time. Some of them are on the spectrum but I don't believe that this is a characteristic of the autism spectrum.

There are other words used to describe these states; Sociopaths for instance. I doubt that these people are truly emotionless but the fact remains that there are people for whom emotion is rare. Obviously if they don't feel emotion for themselves, how are they going to feel emotion for others (empathy)?

This brings me to an interesting side note:

Suppose that one of these emotionless people (a sociopath?) has an accident. Perhaps their pet dies. By definition, they feel no emotion about the event. For the moment, we'll just assume that this is all true.

Now suppose that a neurotypical person comes along and this person has no idea that the sociopath does not feel any emotion. If the NT finds out about the pet, they're going to feel "empathy" for the sociopath but this isn't true empathy. The NT will feel sadness and loss which isn't the same as what the sociopath is feeling.

Is it wrong?

How is NT empathy "better" than aspie empathy here? The NT has projected their own feelings onto the situation - clearly ignoring the real feelings of the pet owner.

Think about an embarrassing situation, where someone falls over or has a clothing malfunction. Perhaps I'm thinking about the guy who fell off the back of the titanic in James Cameron's movie and hit the propeller with a hilarious metallic "thunk". The aspie is clearly feeling an emotion here... humour... it might not be the same as the emotion they're supposed to feel but is projecting the wrong emotion still ... empathy?

I'll leave that for my readers to decide...

I raise this point because I find that NTs can often find empathy in a situation but personally, I need the other person to clearly show me that they have an emotion before I can empathize.

3. When the Emotion cannot be related to
This was my original point (the rest of this post grew around it).

Miranda's opening paragraph talks about her relating to embarrassment;

"If I see a person do something embarrassing, even if I don’t know them, I can still feel their embarrassment radiating off of them. Emotions just radiate from others and become my own, most of the time I don’t know the reason for their feelings. I just feel them."

I've had a lot of awkward moments in my life. Seriously. I'd be happy to talk about them. I'm not embarrassed, ashamed or whatever. My "skin" is tough and my self esteem is high enough these days to crush any feelings of embarrassment because I accept who I am - klutz and all.

I have no understanding of embarrassment and I really can't relate to the concept.

There are a whole load of emotions I can relate to and empathize with but embarrassment simply isn't one of them. Do something embarrassing in front of me and I won't empathize with your embarrassment but I will project my "amused" empathy onto you. Of course, if you react by crying, then I can share your sadness - even if I don't exactly understand what caused it.


Anonymous said…
Empathy, like lying, Is one of those area where we can all vary significantly. I have empathy issues. I also have severe sensory issues as well. It was recently identified that I never learned what my emotions are. I understand positive and negative and I assigned them all the names I was taught but incorrectly. To me they were all a bunch of synonyms for two emotions. Actually emotions were an area that I swept under the rug. So under the rug (Using metaphor) also went the socially correct responses to my own emotions as well. If someone tells me that they lost a pet, I assign a negative value and then it just gets confusing from there. I cannot look at a photo of a poor homeless child and not feel deep pain, however I just cannot put my self in those shoes. I think that not understanding my own experience is my barrier.
Jayn said…
Your side note touches on a really frustrating tendency of NTs--the projection of their feelings onto others. Ever heard the phrase "You have no reason to be upset"? That's exactly what I'm talking about. It's telling the person that their feelings don't matter, their lived reality doesn't matter, because other people don't think there's anything wrong. It is one of the most frustrating things to deal with, having your emotions negated in such a way.

There's a phrase I heard somewhere that I think is very true--all emotions are valid. And I think emotions are a lot more rational than we give them credit for. We always have reasons for feeling the way we do. We may not know them, and some people may think they're bullshit, but they're there. Our emotions are the logical responses to our interpretations of a situation. To tell someone they shouldn't be upset is to tell them that they're Wrong.
Victoria said…
Hi Gavin,
I really appreciate your thoughts. I'm a NT in a relationship with an aspie. Reading your posts and gaining a better understanding of the ups and downs associated with being an aspie has made all the difference.

On an unrelated note that scene from Titanic where the man hits the propeller elicits uproarious laughter from me every time, even as a child. I'm glad I am not the only one!
Izel said…
Yes! Finally! Somebody understands my feelings about empathy! I definitely have trouble empathizing with Emberassment and Social Discomfort, but I understand all the important emotions like happiness and sadness. One of my psychologists said that I have more empathy than most people when I know that someone is feeling an emotion.
Another thing that people have to remember is the difference between empathy and sympathy--sympathy means you can put yourself in the other person's shoes, while empathy means you feel the other person's emotion. I have trouble putting myself in others' shoes, but I feel very sad when someone else is sad, even if I don't know why.
Ralph Doncaster said…
Google defines empathy as: "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another"

It is not impossible for Aspies to have empathy; it's just more difficult than average people. I think the poor emotional perception derives from underperforming mirror neurons. They are what allow us to sense what another person is feeling or doing.

After reading Ekman's "Emotions Revealed" and other books on emotions I have been able to learn how to analyze people to allow me to infer their subtle emotions. It doesn't give me the innate sensitivity of an average person, but it does improve my empathy as defined above.

I have also found it is possible to improve my innate emotional perception with stimulant ADHD medication. I suspect the drugs stimulate not only executive function areas of the brain but also areas with mirror neurons.

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